With one man’s sudden confession, one of the most notorious crimes in South Korean history has been flipped on its head. Last week, 56-year-old Lee Choon-jae admitted to being the serial killer who held the city of Hwaseong gripped with fear from 1986 to 1991. Imprisoned for raping and brutally murdering his sister-in-law in 1994, Lee was recently identified via DNA profiling 30 years after the crimes took place, and has now confessed to killing five people in addition to the nine known victims.
The case’s unexpected closure has led to a surge of renewed media interest in the case, ranging from daily updates on Lee’s confessions to documentaries hastily thrown together on the killer’s personal life. Many Koreans are also revisiting Bong Joon-ho’s 2003 crime drama Memories of Murder. Inspired by the Hwaseong serial murder, the film follows detectives Park Doo-man (Song Kang-ho) and Seo Tae-yoon (Kim Sang-kyung) on their unsuccessful journey to capture the serial killer terrorising Gyeonggi province. While the film was well received upon release, the meticulous research that went into the project is often overlooked.
During a 10-year anniversary panel discussion on the film, Bong emphasised the strenuous yearlong investigation he undertook. “I interviewed lots of people relating to the murders,” he recalled, “but the person I wanted to talk to the most was the killer himself.” Bong’s dedication and genuine desire to identify the murderer infused the film’s overall tone of desperation. Memories of Murder quickly became a Korean cult classic, helping to keep the Hwaseong serial murders in the public consciousness.
Fascinatingly, the details of the case described in the film are almost identical to those of the real-life murders. The methods used to kill the victims – their limbs bound with their own clothes or underwear before being suffocated – are the same as Lee’s. The grotesque scene in which the forensic pathologist pulls peach slices out of a corpse’s mutilated uterus mirrors the findings of the case. Continued interest in the film over time led to the formation of post-memory: the generational passing of trauma. This explains in part why young Koreans are so fascinated by Lee’s arrest, even though the murders took place well before their time. The prevalence of this cold case in Korean popular culture was an incentive to continue investigating it.
Additionally Memories of Murder has had a wider societal impact in Korea, contributing to the development of criminology and forensic science. The reason why the case proved so difficult to solve was not necessarily because the killer had outsmarted the police but rather due to poor investigative skills.
In the beginning of the film, detective Park rashly forges fake footprints to cover up the fact that a tractor had just run over a crucial piece of evidence. Interrogation scenes involve Park regularly drop kicking, cursing at and downright torturing suspects, forcing confessions out of innocent parties. Throughout the film, Bong condemns the rough tactics of the Korean National Police agency; the release of Memories of Murder was an opportunity for the police to reflect on their shortcomings and improve their methods of evidence collection.
Though many details were true to the original crimes, some were added purely to add a layer of dramatic tension. Thanks to Bong’s film, it is widely accepted that the killer only chose to hunt down fair-skinned women dressed in red clothing, and that his sinister intent became heightened on stormy nights. Both are misconceptions, and consequently the film has been criticised for sensationalising the case.
It is important to note that Memories of Murder did not directly lead to the identification of Lee Choon-jae – the decisive factor lies with the hard work of the investigating officers. Bong, who was at the Beyond Fest in Los Angeles at the time of Lee’s arrest, intimated that we should first and foremost praise the police for going out of their way to bring the culprit to justice. However, the film undoubtedly played an important role in shaping the public’s understanding of these brutal murders.
Published 8 Oct 2019
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